New book is full of conversational reading
For the past 11 years, Donna Seaman's Open Books radio show has been something of a Walden Pond for visiting and local authors.
In the windowless room that once served as her studio at Loyola University's WLUW community station, the likes of T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates and Sandra Cisneros have taken refuge in what is surely a writer's paradise: a place to talk about writing for an uninterrupted hour. And yet, once the show was finished, the conversation disappeared into the ether.
"I started feeling like I had these incredible treasures," says Seaman, associate editor at Booklist, the American Library Association's review magazine. "I love the radio, but it's ephemeral. And books are really my passion."
So she culled the liveliest conversations from her show to create Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (Paul Dry Books, $24.95), a collection of more than 30 interviews from the show with biographical sketches and critical analyses of each author.
Because Seaman reads books for a living—she averages a book a day and estimates that she writes more than 20 reviews a month for Booklist—she manages to make connections between disparate groups of authors as only a prodigious reader can. That's why the book's groupings include everything from "First-time Novelists" like Edward P. Jones to "Genre Crossers," which includes Chicago cartoonist Lynda Barry, who wrote a novel, and nature and travel writer Barry Lopez, who also writes fiction.
When it came time to select which interviews to include in the book, Seaman gave precedence to the authors she felt are underrecognized, like Madison Smartt Bell (The Stone that the Builder Refused) and Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses). The reading list at the end of the book offers a glimpse into her labyrinthine mind—a place where seemingly disparate writers, like Franz Kafka and Jeanette Winterson, are linked. She puts them both under the general heading of fiction having to do with metaphysics and quan-tum theory.
The book also serves Seaman's larger mission: to bring as many literary writers to the attention of as many readers as possible.
"Criticism and reviewing and talking about books—it's a terrific endeavor," she says. "It's important to have someone help readers find books since there are so many out there and so few get reviewed. I look at it as a kind of ecological situation. We need people to work on all kinds of levels, like nature."
Seaman stumbled upon her radio gig in a 1994 conversation with Craig Kois, a friend from her graduate-school days at DePaul who had taken over as WLUW's station manager. When she innocently mentioned they needed a show on books, he responded, "I thought you'd never ask."
What began as a half-hour program with Seaman talking about her latest literary obsession soon grew into an hour-long interview show with live authors. As the show took off, she had to turn down a deluge of requests from authors and publicists. Yet, despite a heavy workload, she manages to squeeze in two interviews a month.
Since WBEZ took over WLUW a few years ago and the station moved to Loyola's lakeshore campus, Open Books has slightly grander digs. (In other words, her studio now has a window.) But it's still a volunteer effort with no budget to edit the conversations, which air exactly as they're recorded. The only funding comes from an Illinois Arts Council grant.
But what sticks with the reader is just how damn hard writing can be. Take first-time novelist Jones, who wrote his novel, The Known World, in his head for ten years before putting anything down on paper. (The actual writing took only a few months.) When Barry wrote the first draft of her novel Cruddy-it was 800 pages long and painted in watercolor.
Reading the interviews laced together, it's easy to believe Cisneros when she tells Seaman that writing her novel Caramelo "was like pushing a Buick with my forehead."
Open Books airs the second and fourth Sundays of the month, at 8pm on WLUW-FM 88.7. Seaman will host a book-release party and WLUW benefit on Wednesday 26.